I didn’t realise how much I love the theatre until I couldn’t go anymore. I took it for granted that I could wander down to the National, the Old Vic and Young Vic, the Almeida and the Bridge, the Menier Chocolate Factory, The Globe, The Royal Court – whenever I wanted to. I’d often go mid-week, after work, grabbing cheap last minute tickets for the price of a seat in the cinema. I loved being immersed in that dark communal womb of wonder where the outside world falls away and you’re fully, utterly, breathlessly present for two precious hours. Watching another world come alive before your eyes, the product of a collaboration between so many artists, is a joy and a privilege, and witnessing it with a mass of unknown others, who, for those two hours, form a connection – become one with you – in that suspended moment of shared experience, is a form of genuine magic. But living in London, I was spoiled by how much choice there was of theatre to see, and I didn’t recognise it as a privilege to be able to watch one or two plays a week – it was just a given. Sometimes – sometimes I would book tickets and not even go! I’d be too tired after a day at work and think oh well, it doesn’t matter, I’ve got something else booked for next week – what I wouldn’t give for such nonchalance now. I truly didn’t appreciate what I had, and how precious my theatregoing experiences were. I also had no idea how empty my life would feel without that ability to immerse myself into an imaginary universe once per week. I only truly understood what the theatre meant to me when I walked down to the National Theatre in May, saw its blank-eyed facade devoid of any life, and burst into tears. I genuinely felt like I had lost a friend.
More time has passed in this strange state of limbo than I’m sure any of us could have imagined since coronavirus arrived on our doorsteps. We have had to adapt and adjust and accept our new reality, and in many ways, I feel this has been a good exercise in learning not to sweat the small stuff. It’s also been an excellent exercise in helping me to distil exactly what I value the most, and what I really could do without in my life. Understanding how much the theatre means to me has led me off down a path I never thought I’d tread; I’ve been writing plays myself, and am currently doing a playwriting class (online!), which I’m enjoying enormously. I’d never thought for a minute that I could possibly write a play – and I’m certainly no great shakes at it! – but I’m loving the experience of thinking like a playwright, and discussing plays from the perspective of a playwright, and sharing my passion for plays with people who also love the theatre. And, in order to fuel my creativity, and replace the void of theatre-going in my life, I’ve been reading plays, which is never something I’ve ever really done for pleasure. Obviously, as an English teacher, I read and teach plays all the time, but it had never occurred to me to read them for non-work purposes. After spending a few weeks immersed in plays, I’ve discovered how much I’ve been missing. Most plays take an hour or less to read, and the experience of reading them is intense and exhilarating. As a reader, you have to do so much more work with a play than you do with a novel – it’s up to you to fill in the silences, to interpret the stage directions, to imagine the staging. It is a real imaginative workout for the brain, and while it doesn’t replace seeing it come to life before my eyes, I’ve been on a wonderful journey through some of the best plays of the last few years. If you need to reboot your reading life, or are struggling with attention span at the moment, give a play a go. You might be surprised by just how much you enjoy it.
I’ve been galloping through the back catalogues of Noel Coward, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Brian Friel, Eugene O’Neill and Caryl Churchill, as well as exploring the work of some of the most interesting and challenging playwrights of the last ten to twenty years – Jez Butterworth, Laura Wade, Simon Stephens, Sarah Kane, Annie Baker. I’ve been looking at different translations of Ibsen and Chekhov and Brecht. One play often leads to another, one playwright to another, as I seek out more in a particular style, genre or period. It’s an education, and it’s certainly giving me a focus and a distraction during this latest lockdown. I am just loving it. If you’d like to have an explore of some playwrights outside of the big historical names, this publishing company, Nick Hern Books, is a great place to start.
And finally, my own sadness at the closure of theatres is nothing compared to the devastation felt by those who work in the theatre, a huge number of whom are freelancers and receive very little, if any, government support. If you can, please do support your local theatres – become a member, donate some money, or pay for some of the online streaming services the larger theatres, such as the National, are offering. The thought that theatres may not be able to reopen due to insolvency when this is all over is unbearable – the loss to our collective cultural life will be immeasurable. We must do what we can now to ensure our theatres have a future on the other side of this.